Rice's first gambit: fix frayed ties to Europe

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on European nations Tuesday to throw their weight behind President Bush's campaign to spread freedom worldwide, and urged them to put past transatlantic arguments behind them.

"It is time to turn away from the disagreements of the past," she said. "It is time to open a new chapter in our relationship and a new chapter in our alliance."

Addressing an audience of French students and foreign-policy specialists, Ms. Rice offered Europe an olive branch of dialogue after three years of troubled relations, dogged by disagreements over Iraq.

She had made Europe her first destination "so we can talk together about how America and Europe can use the power of our partnership to advance our ideals worldwide."

The speech crowned a week-long fence-mending trip to the Middle East and Europe that has won Colin Powell's successor plaudits for making that effort.

"You don't turn the page just like that," says former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who attended the speech. "But we are going in the right direction."

Other observers were disappointed. "It was a conciliatory speech and the tone was very good," says Guillaume Parmentier, head of the French Center on the United States, a think tank in Paris. But "it was not very strong on perspective and imagination beyond the need to spread freedom."

Rice acknowledged that "we have not always seen eye to eye." But she stressed that Washington and Europe do agree on what the threats to international stability are: terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and failed states.

The Secretary of State emphasized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one area where Europe and the US could work together. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas announced a cease-fire hours before Rice spoke in Paris. "We must all be committed to seize this chance," Rice said.

She also asked Europe to help Iraqis rebuild and develop democracy in their country to show "solidarity and generosity" in their relations with Baghdad.

In a nod to European critics who see a US propensity to use force over diplomacy, Rice stressed that freedom "must be chosen. It cannot be given, and it certainly cannot be imposed."

But she insisted that "we on the right side of freedom's divide have an obligation to help those unlucky enough to have been born on the wrong side of that divide."

Several years of bruising differences between Washington and Europe, most notably over the Iraq war, have left the transatlantic relationship strained. European leaders took heart, however, from Rice's explanation at her Senate confirmation hearings that she was visiting Europe "to unite this important alliance behind the kind of great goals that we have."

Her comments during the trip stressing the importance of America's European allies have also fed hopes that the Bush administration may now be readier to listen to its friends.

"There is a very real change in atmospherics," says François Heisbourg, head of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think tank in Paris. "But that doesn't mean that we have a common project.

"There is general agreement that there is little to be gained by trading brickbats, so there is a reconciliation between Europe and the United States by default," he adds.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington's firmest European ally, voiced such hopes clearly at the World Economic Forum last month. "If America wants the rest of the world to be part of the agenda it has set, it must be part of their agenda too," he warned.

High on that agenda, Mr. Blair said, is global warming. But the US has shown no sign of softening its opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to limit greenhouse gases. Blair has championed the treaty, which takes effect next week.

"It is not at all clear that the Bush administration is willing to change any policies to accommodate the Europeans," says Hurst Hannum, professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

The two sides' policies on Iran, for example, which both European and US leaders fear is trying to develop nuclear weapons, remain far apart.

Although US officials say they support the European Union's policy of negotiating incentives with Tehran to dissuade the theocratic government from enriching uranium, Washington has steadfastly stayed out of the talks.

European diplomats say privately that even if they succeed in persuading the Iranians to abandon their uranium-enrichment program, no deal would mean anything without US participation.

The EU's plans to abandon a 15-year-old arms embargo against China - expected to be lifted later this year - is another point of contention. Nor can Washington expect any help in Iraq, though Germany and France have offered to train Iraqi policemen outside the country.

One point of common ground, suggests Mr. Heisbourg, could be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rice announced Monday that both Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon and Mr. Abbas would visit Washington this spring.

Another area of agreement could be defusing India's dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir, says Professor Hannum. But different perspectives could make deep cooperation difficult.

"I don't see things getting any worse [in the transatlantic relationship] over the next few years," Hannum predicts. "But I'm not at all certain they'll get any better."

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